LPD Controversy: Observations from Lakeland Commission, Jerry Hill Meeting

I haven’t weighed in at all on the LPD mess to this point on here. I’ve put some comments out on Twitter every now and then, but I haven’t had the time or really the collected thoughts to post something worthwhile.

I caught the final back and forth of the Lakeland City Commission’s meeting with State Attorney Jerry Hill on Friday. Hill had already made a presentation to the Commission, which I was able to follow on Twitter thanks to the posts by @LakelandGov and The Ledger’s Lenore Devore (@lebe1963). The presentation outlined numerous instances where Hill’s office has been unable to get information from LPD in a timely manner, if at all, leading to cases that couldn’t be prosecuted and potentially dozens of criminals on the streets who otherwise would have been convicted and jailed.

Hill’s appearance followed months of back and forth in the media with Hill criticizing LPD (especially Chief Lisa Womack) while a grand jury report that was part of an investigation into public records issues at the department sat dormant thanks to the city’s legal efforts to keep it that way (to the tune of more than $200,000 in taxpayer money). The grand jury’s presentment was finally released this month, and suffice to say it was about time all these parties got together face-to-face, save for Chief Womack who did not speak at the meeting.

The part I caught was basically a Q&A for the Commission and City Manager Doug Thomas to address Hill, and there were some interesting points. Here’s a few thoughts from what I heard and also read on Twitter and TheLedger.com:

  • I understand what most of the Commission and Thomas are wanting to do. They (being pretty much everyone but Howard Wiggs) accept that mistakes have been made at LPD, whether through the public records issues, the sex scandal, poor record of working with Hill’s office, etc. They also don’t think Womack should be fired. They feel the issues are correctable. Mayor Gow Fields emphasized that when he pushed back on Hill to make the point that there is progress being made on many of the recommendations set forth in the grand jury presentment, including the fact that the department regained its accreditation. There is also a new public information officer, who replaced Womack’s longtime associate Ann Dinges. Dinges is still, as far as I can tell, employed by LPD, however, which was against two recommendations made by the presentment. In making his point, Fields used the phrase “progress instead of perfection” when it comes to the goals for LPD. And that’s fine, nothing is ever going to be perfect.

    But here’s my issue: If the basis for progress is the nine recommendations found in the presentment, then why pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep it sealed for months? Those named in the presentment had seen it, but they couldn’t talk about it. So it’s possible that leadership involved made note of the recommendations and went to work immediately to implement them. I find that doubtful, as the accreditation process was already in motion and Dinges was relocated because of information that came to light separate from the presentment. If those recommendations and progress toward them are so important, why didn’t the city want it to be released, to be transparent about its issues and then get to work on making improvements. There was nothing criminal. Had Thomas, Womack, Fields, etc., come forward in February and allowed the presentment to be released publicly, owned up to the mistakes and outlined how things were going to be fixed, I don’t think Friday’s meeting with Hill takes place. That kind of transparency and commitment might have even won Fields reelection, assuming the sex scandal issues were also being resolved accordingly. So while I appreciate that progress is being made in some areas, I think that progress could have been made much sooner and been done with public accountability.

  • At this point, I don’t know what do with Chief Womack. Firing her could lead to a fresh start, or it could lead to more instability at a time when it does seem that things are finally starting to move forward. What I am more convinced of now after Friday’s meeting is that Womack was the wrong hire three years ago. The presentment put it this way:

    “Indeed, we have concerns about whether hiring Womack was a wise decision. Womack was initially ranked somewhere between eighth and 15th among multiple applicants by the Selection Advisory Committee.”

    During Hill’s presentation, the Lakeland government Twitter account quoted Hill as saying:

    At one point, when Edie Yates was asking Hill about quarterly meetings that his office has with LPD to address any issues with cases, Yates wondered whether Hill and his team have expressed the importance of providing information in a timely manner and the repercussions to prosecution that could come from LPD not providing information. Hill was somewhat incredulous, responding (and I’m paraphrasing), “Do you really think I should have to explain the importance of this information to professional law enforcement officers or managers?” No, Jerry, you shouldn’t.

    Then, when citizens were allowed to address the Commission, one read a report from Womack’s time as Elgin, Ohio, chief of police that sounded as if it could have been from the past nine months here in Lakeland. Frankly, it seems that Womack is making Thomas’ job and that of the Commission harder than it needs to be. There isn’t a clear enough reason to me why they should keep her as chief moving forward, while there are many reasons to justify firing her. Consider me confused.

  • One other thing that struck me as odd, that I wasn’t able to confirm until The Ledger’s recap of the meeting this morning: Wiggs didn’t say a word. In his own words after the meeting, “I just sat there.” I understand his attempt to vote on firing Womack was rebuffed by the rest of the Commission earlier in the week. Still, he’s been so outspoken on this issue, and he had a wealth of information/ammunition in front of him with Hill in the room. He could have asked any number of questions of Hill to draw out more statements or problems with LPD and Womack. He also could have simply taken the opportunity to make his point again that he feels Womack should be fired. I’m not a huge fan of grandstanding, which I think Wiggs has done some over the past year, but if there was ever a time to do it Friday was the time. I found his silence surprising. Maybe he saw no value in saying anything else until the new Commission starts in 2014, and maybe he was right, but I expected him to lead the discussion and start laying more foundation for what he wants to see happen when he becomes mayor.
  • Finally, it was hinted at by the Commission and more clearly stated by some citizens that none of this would be as big of an issue if it weren’t for The Ledger. One citizen went so far as to call the paper’s work “yellow journalism” while criticizing it for “anonymous” editorials. First, no editorial is anonymous. The name isn’t at the bottom of the editorial, but it’s at the top of the page where it clearly states Glen Marston as the editorial editor. Lenore Devore and Jerome Ferson are also listed there. The editorial page is meant to be the opinion of the paper, not a single person (even though Marston writes most everything on there). Second, The Ledger has done outstanding work on this issue. If it’s gotten personal, I would say that’s because LPD literally had a “Jeremy rule” that was mentioned in the presentment, meant to keep reporter Jeremy Maready at bay. The relationship between public officials and newspapers isn’t supposed to be cushy. It should be respectful and honest, but reporters and officials aren’t supposed to grab a beer together every night. The Ledger has reported facts this entire time, and it’s given LPD and the Commission the opportunity to respond to any reports or criticisms. So the bad guy here is not The Ledger. It’s true that this wouldn’t be as big of a story if it weren’t for the paper, but that’s a good thing.
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